Essentials for Transformative Narratives: Go On Offense
Narrative plays a big role in building the public will to solve homelessness. Dominant narratives about people experiencing homelessness focus on individuals making bad personal decisions, which often lead to ineffective and dehumanizing solutions – like clearing tents and throwing out people’s belongings, including ID, medications and what they need to survive. That’s why we’re working to build a transformative narrative that helps people understand that housing is a human need and necessary for everyone in our community to thrive.
Through research, we have identified several essential elements for crafting messaging that will help us build narrative power.
One of these elements is to go on offense.
We’ve all heard false narratives and disinformation about the causes of homelessness. It can be tempting to try to respond directly, proving that they are incorrect, inaccurate or overblown. But doing that only reinforces the claims we are trying to debunk, which cements those narratives in peoples’ memories. Studies have shown that repeating these untruths – even when labeling them false – can cement them in the listener’s mind as familiar, and therefore true. It is better to avoid engaging in tit-for-tat messaging.
When countering false information, lead with the message you want your audience to walk away with.
Focus on the systemic causes of homelessness – high rents coupled with low-paying jobs, racist and exclusionary housing practices, a lack of safety net, expensive healthcare, etc. Our messages and stories should focus on the real causes of homelessness, the solutions, and remind our audiences that solving homelessness requires lots of people, organizations and agencies coming together to ensure everyone has a safe place to call home.
The media and politicians frequently present homelessness as an insurmountable problem. So we need to demonstrate that there are proven solutions, as well as the path to get there. We need to provide examples of how communities have come together to solve homelessness.
It can be difficult to move people to system-focused thinking. According to Brett Davidson, “humans tend to see the existing order not just as the way things are, but as natural, or even the way things ought to be,” even by those who are actively harmed by systems.
Therefore changing policies that cause homelessness requires us to change the narrative and expose the realities of the systems of power, while also providing a hopeful vision of an alternative to the status quo.
That means leading with values, stories from people who have lived experience, and skipping the wonk, statistics and program names. Focus your messaging on what you are trying to achieve, and how your audience can be part of the solution.
As an example, most advocates agree that Housing First is a proven, effective solution to homelessness. But when we talk about this solution with the public, help them to see what Housing First will mean for their community, not the fine details of the program.
Take a look at the examples below and think about which message would motivate the average person in your community to support a Housing First solution:
“No matter who we are, we all need a home to be safe, healthy and thriving. We have proven strategies to ensure all our neighbors have a permanent place to live so they can rebuild their lives.”
“Housing First is an evidence-based approach to ending homelessness that centers on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent housing and then providing additional supports and services as needed.”
Even terms like “affordable housing” can be less effective than personalizing the issue by putting people front and center and leaning in on that sentimental feeling that ‘home’ evokes. Consider using language like “ensuring everyone has a place to call home” rather than “creating programs that make housing affordable” or “developing affordable housing units.”
So next time you sit down to craft a message or respond to misinformation, make sure you provide correct information, framed with a hopeful vision of solutions for systemic problems and what these solutions will mean for people in your community.
Stay tuned as we continue to share essential elements for building transformative narratives in the coming months.